Carly Fiorina's business record: Asset or liability?

Last Updated Sep 18, 2015 1:45 PM EDT

When Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was named chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) in 1999, BusinessWeek noted "her challenge will be to propel staid Hewlett-Packard into the Internet Age without sacrificing the very things that have made it great." She was fired in 2005 after failing to meet those high ideals.

The track record of the 61-year-old Fiorina, the only woman seeking the GOP nomination, came into focus during Wednesday night's debate. Hers is a modern Horatio Alger story. She started out as a secretary at a small real estate firm after dropping out of law school. Eventually, she was hired by AT&T (T) as a management trainee and worked her way up the corporate ladder. She eventually oversaw the spinoff of Lucent from the telecom giant, which got HP's attention.

"She's not Donald Trump. She didn't inherit her influence, she earned it," said Harvard Business School assistant professor Gautum Mukunda, in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch. "She rose as a woman in an industry that is particularly hostile to women even now, and it was much harder to do it when she did it then."

But as front-runner Trump and others have noted, Fiorina's tenure at HP was controversial. MIT's Michael Cusumano described her management style as "technocratic." In 2001, she pushed the company to acquire PC maker Compaq for $25 billion, a deal that fell short of expectations and is widely considered a disaster. Indeed, HP hasn't been the same since then.

During Wednesday's debate, Fiorina bragged that under her leadership, HP quadrupled its top-line growth, quadrupled its cash flow and tripled its rate of innovation. What Trump and Mukunda pointed out, though, is those figures are solely the result of adding Compaq's results after the acquisition, which was wildly unprofitable.

"If your whole claim as to why you should be president of the United States is that you are some extraordinarily gifted corporate leader, then the question one would ask is: So, what about your record makes us think you are?" said Mukunda, author of the book "Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter." "I'm not aware of anyone who is saying, 'oh yeah, this was the best American manager of her era.' I know lots of people who say she was the worst, but no one is saying she was the best."

Under Fiorina, HP failed to connect with consumers at a time when Apple (AAPL) was becoming dominant in that sphere, and it lost out on the acquisition of the consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers to IBM (IBM) in 2002. Critics fault Fiorina for failing to keep the company's innovative spirit alive, also known as the HP Way.

To make matters worse, HP's board was racked by infighting. Chair Patricia Dunn was forced to resign amid revelations that the board had gained access to some journalists' phone records as part of its investigation into leaks to the press. In public comments, Fiorina has blamed her ouster from HP on the "dysfunctional board."

Mukunda, however, sees things differently. He noted that the board was a mess before she got to the company, and it remained so after she left.

Others take a more charitable view.

"She really got a raw deal by her board," Kellie A. McElhaney, a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, told CBS MoneyWatch. McElhaney argues that male CEOs with similar track records aren't getting the level of criticism that Fiorina has gotten. "There is no question that female CEOs are blamed for things like stock performance that they can't fully control more often than male CEOs."

Fiorina has made her competency in business a central point of her campaign, just as she did with her earlier, unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate. If she continues to rise in the polls, expect to hear her talk more about it, though Mukunda noted that the skills that make a good business leader don't always apply to the political world.

But in the political world, it's the voters who'll get the final say on this question.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.